If it was not shattered already, the myth of a post-racial American society has been thoroughly torn to pieces in the last few weeks. The racial profiling and murder of two Americans—one Arab and one Black—has underlined the need for stronger solidarity between these communities and a resistance based on what is becoming an increasingly shared struggle. In one case, a woman’s hijab was the trigger for violence; in the other, violence was excused through reference to a teenager’s hoodie. By examining the linkages between Islamophobic and anti-black violence and how they are both justified, we gain a clearer picture of what is at stake in the newest struggle against American racism.
On Wednesday, March 21, Fatima el Himidi returned home from school to find her mother lying unconscious in a pool of her own blood. Lying beside 32-year-old Shaima Alawadi’s body was a note: “go back to your country, you terrorist.” Like thousands of other residents of El Cajon, Calif., Alawadi was from Iraq, and she had left her native country for America in 1993. Alawadi left and found a better life in this quiet San Diego suburb, but it was a vitriolic brand of American racism and Islamophobia that would brutally claim her life.
The details of Trayvon Martin’s murder are, by now, much more familiar to many of us. A young black man was walking home in a small Florida town when an older man of mixed white and Hispanic descent named George Zimmerman started following him, eventually confronting the boy and gunning him down in broad daylight. The police accepted Zimmerman’s self-defense plea and for weeks refused to act despite the obvious flaws in the plea’s logic. Only in the wake of national outrage has the police begun a more thorough investigation, but as of yet Zimmerman has been neither charged nor arrested.
These killings reflect an increasingly virulent form of racism that has emerged in the last decade, as explicit expression of racial hatred has become taboo and those who espouse ideologies of white supremacy and its numerous ideological bedfellows find different codes with which to express their beliefs.
Notice, for example, how Republican presidential nominee Newt Gingrich uses phrases like “poor children… have nobody around them who works” and “food stamp president” to garner support among white voters. These references draw upon a history of racist caricatures of urban black communities and so-called “welfare queens” that are patently obvious to all of us but which avoid the key words he knows he can’t use anymore. The persistence of racism at the national level is extremely dangerous and allows accused murderers like George Zimmerman to avoid punishment.
Trayvon Martin’s hoodie has been singled out by commentators as an apparently threatening piece of clothing that is “as much responsible for his death” as the man who shot him, according to Fox News commentator Geraldo M. Rivera. Rivera’s statement is an outrageous example of victim-blaming, and it makes little sense. How could a hoodie be responsible for a murder?
It is only when Martin’s race is highlighted that Rivera’s claim makes sense, as he is rather obviously invoking the image of a “dangerous black man in a hoodie” to inflame the public. White men in hoodies rarely provoke public fear (unless they are Klansmen). For Rivera, and arguably in much of the discourse around the case, wearing a hoodie has come to stand in for being black. This kind of racist subtext is so barely veiled that it’s practically text (as Yo Is This Racist pointed out), but it retains a veneer of legitimacy because it remains implicit. Instead of blaming the color of his skin for his death, Rivera blames his hoodie. As a result, his statements are not explicitly racist, but they could only make sense if you are a racist.
Shaima Alawadi’s hijab has come to play a different but related role. Alawadi was targeted explicitly because she was a Muslim, as the threatening note beside her body makes clear. However, because Arab and Muslim Americans cannot be identified by their skin color, it was her head covering that marked her for death.
One of the most surprising aspects of the Alawadi case has been the lack of a nationwide uproar at her slaying. Although Arab and Muslim Americans have publicized the case as a horrifying example of the increasing racial hatred directed against their communities since 9/11, the mainstream media have been relatively quiet. Islamophobic representation of Muslims and Arabs fill the media, characterizing these communities as violent terrorists in the same way African American youth are characterized as criminals.
Yet it has been difficult to square the image of Muslim terrorists with a San Diego housewife brutalized for her religion. Indeed, Alawadi’s Muslimness is represented in the public arena most notably by her absence. And thus far, Muslim and Arab-American communities targeted by a decade of police surveillance, FBI entrapment, hate crimes, and spying on mosques have yet to mount a substantive campaign for justice.
Despite this, Muslim and Arab-Americans have been fighting back against the government’s war on civil rights and against the Islamophobic climate that has emerged. The struggles ahead will require solidarity building based on an awareness of the shared experiences of African-, Arab-, and Muslim American victims that these cases highlight. Wearing neither a hoodie nor a hijab is a reason for murder, and standing up to racial hatred means opposing all of its forms.
Alex R. Shams is an A.M. candidate in Middle Eastern Studies. His column appears on alternate Fridays.